Thursday, September 09, 2010

Lessons learned

Now that I have a game published, hundreds of people have played it, and I've had to demo and teach it a whole lot of times, I've started to see some things I wish I'd done differently. I've learned a lot about rules writing from this, and hopefully my experience will lead to better designs and rulebooks in the future. Maybe you can learn from my experience as well...

Things I wish I'd done differently in Terra Prime
I am not above admitting that Terra Prime's rules could have been better written, and in some cases better designed. I'm making this list of things I wish I'd done differently so that I can reference it in the future - so that when given the opportunity (should a 2nd edition or expansion become viable) I can "correct" some of these "mistakes." I put that in quotes because strictly speaking they're not mistakes. Everything in the game works, and works the way I intended it to. According to BGG I have played Terra Prime 86 times (since I started counting) and I still enjoy it. I think it's a strong design, and frankly I'm surprised it didn't go over better with the BGG community in general. However, if I knew then what I know now I would have done the following differently (in no particular order):

* Offloading a Colony Marker: I should have allowed offloading a Colony at any time, for free, just like you can jettison resource cubes. Thematically, they're cryogenically frozen people, and jettisoning them into space would not be very polite, but that could be explained away by simply saying "they are shuttled back to the space station." Mechanically, I wanted picking up a colony marker to be a Big Deal. You do it when you want to colonize, not when you want to go pick up resources. However, I found during play that one could get 'stuck' with a colony marker and be unable to do anything until they went back to base to offload it - so I allowed offloading the marker while in space, but so as not to kill all the people, you had to do it at a colony. That seemed fine, make it a Use Colony action... but I didn't like that you had to spend a turn action to correct a mistake you might have made picking up the marker in the first place. You already wasted an action picking it up after all. So I decided to make it a free action, but still count it as Using a Colony. That's nonsense, I've added an action, and an exception (since it doesn't count against your actions for the turn) for this little, tiny thematic thing. I should have allowed colony markers to be returned to your supply at any time. It doesn't help that the player aid doesn't mention that it's a free action, just lists offloading as a Use Colony action. Even the term "Free action" must now be defined, and that's the only one in the game. Shame on me for that!

In the 2nd edition or the expansion, should they ever see print, that rule will be corrected.

* Cost of Weapons and Shields: Originally, the cost of each Module was "10 credits plus 10 more credits per module of that type already on your ship." I decide that was too complicated, so I simplified most of the costs to those in the final game. However, in Terra Prime your 2nd weapon helps a lot more than your first one does, and your 3rd weapon helps a lot more than that. Therefore I thought it appropriate to scale the cost of those weapons - as you can see they cost 10/30/50 for your 1st/2nd/3rd module. It's a minor point, but there's not a good reason I didn't use the simpler 10/20/30 credits there. Not only would that be less goofy, but as it stands the third weapon never really gets purchased. As there are only 3 Weapon/Shield slots, it's rare that anyone really wants a 3rd weapon module anyway, so making them exorbitantly expensive doesn't really matter. However in the expansion you will be able to expand your ship, so it's conceivable a player might want 3 weapon modules. To make that more interesting, the 3rd module might ought to be less expensive. In any case I'll have to address the cost of a 4th module - not because anyone will ever want one, but because if they do there's no cost defined.

The Shield cost is goofy because I was attempting to keep the number of actions down. I didn't want to add a "recharge shields" action when I thought I could do it all with the Buy Shields action. So I made the Buy Shield action have 2 parts, first you can bu a shield if you want, then you can charge all your shields if you want. This was harder for some people to understand than I thought it would be, and in the end I wish I'd made shields simply cost 20 and come full of energy, and then have a Recharge Shields action which allowed you to fill up your energy for 10 credits.

* Tile Placement Restriction: Boy did I underestimate how confusing this would be! There is one rule: "no two adjacent sectors can contain planets." And yet there has been plenty of confusion as to how tiles can be placed. I wanted the placement of tiles to be somewhat interesting, and I wanted planets to clump so that when colonizing players would have to choose 1 color over another. I had considered (and even tried) cutting that restriction and allowing any tile placement, but that generally led to way too many colonizing opportunities. I suppose I could have reduced the number of colonizable things on the tiles, but I liked the tile mix as it was. I could have put an "up" arrow on each tile and said you had to orient the tile with the arrow pointing up, but that remove the fun and benefit of being the one exploring the tile! A playetester made a suggestion that all the tiles be face up from the outset, so you know where all the planets are. That's a good idea, but the game is about exploring space, so I was hesitant to use it. I have used that setup for the expansion, which will 'solve' any 'problem' with the tile placement rules by making them a non-issue. All tiles will be face up from the outset of the game. The center of the tiles will be covered with an Exploration Tile which will replace whatever is printed on the tile - so you still have to explore each tile. Also, there is a new item you might find on these Exploration tiles called a Sunstar - which makes planets on that tile uninhabitable. The effect is that while you know where all of the planets are, there's a possibility you will head out to colonize one and it turns out you can't because it's too close to a Sunstar. Of course, scanning would give you this information ahead of time.

* Colonize Sequence Error: this one is a mistake... the artist, in an effort to explain the process of the Colonize action, made a step-by-step list of what to do when colonizing a planet. I thought it sounded good and accurate when I proofed it, but when the game hit the shelves a player pointed out that when following those steps, you get the reward from the reward tile BEFORE you vacate your cargo hold by placing your colony marker. Therefore, unless you buy a cargo hold, many times when you colonize you must discard the resource you get from the reward tile. This was unintended, I had always played that you vacate your cargo hold and then you get the reward (or, it's all simultaneous, so it doesn't matter). When asked the question and reading the rulebook for an answer I had to say "well, the rules say you don't get the reward." In retrospect I could have ruled that it's all simultaneous, but I didn't think of that at the time.

In any case, any future version of the rules will address this. I will probably just add a note that you replace the Colony marker with any resources in the reward tile or something like that.

* Delivery Optimizer: I might have preferred if the Delivery Optimizer didn't have to be bought up front, BEFORE doing deliveries. I wrote it that way so it would be an interesting strategic decisions - AM I planning on doing deliveries and completing tiles? Do I want to commit to that? As a result, when I play I seldom find Delivery optimizer attractive, though I've seen it garner decent points over the course of a game. I might have liked it better though if you could bu it later in the game, and instead of rewarding you when you complete a delivery tile, it rewarded you at game end for each delivery tile you completed. That way if you DID complete a number of demand tiles you could purchase the Optimizer for some points, rather than spending early game resources which could have been traded in for money to upgrade your ship with.

In truth I'm not sure that would be better, I think the Delivery Optimizer is good as it is, but I always wonder when I play why I didn't make it the other way.

* Pacifying Aliens: This isn't a big deal, but every time I explain it I wonder if it really had to be "1 resource per alien symbol PLUS 1" of if it could simply have been "1 resource per symbol." there was a reason for it, but I don't know if the reason was good enough for the added annoyance of that rule not being as simple as it could be. Maybe I could have said that Pacifying cost just 1 resource per symbol, and you DON'T get the reward off the reward tile, if it turned out to be too easy otherwise.

I feel like I'm ranting at this point, but this is my blog, and if I want to rant about my own game then I feel like this is the appropriate place to do so. I hope anyone reading this has played Terra Prime and liked it as is. If you'd like to use any of these variations I've mentioned as a house rule, then feel free to do so. Leave a comment to let me know what you think.

1 comment:

Doug Orleans said...

The Colonize sequence is a big one-- it's pretty drastic to have to throw out an awarded cube because you don't have space, and space is always at a premium.

There are many other slightly-too-fiddly things about this game; some could probably be cleared up with rules clarifications, some could be streamlined with rule changes. I've taught this to groups of new players a handful of times, and the response is never more than lukewarm. I don't think there's anything people hate about it (although one person did complain about the colony sequence thing a lot), but it's a lot of little things that add up, perhaps even just subconsciously, to make a "meh".

Here are some things that players seem to stumble over:

* The movement rules, e.g. the difference between Move and Explore. They're not complicated, but either they could be smoother or I need to find a smoother way to explain them.

* Remembering to refill your empty colonies at the beginning of your turn. Often all your colonies will already be full, or maybe all but one, so it's not a big enough operation to stick in your mind.

* Having to pay to use someone else's colony - it's not expensive enough to really change your decision, it's easy to forget, and it's a bit of a pain to pause and hand over the VP chip. (Or does it come from the bank? I don't even remember, too lazy to check...)

* The mechanism for selling cubes to the demand tiles is not very intuitive - would make more sense if they were all-or-nothing. There's also the issue that selling the last cube is much better than selling the first cube, because you get the tile (with its VP), and this seems more just arbitrary rather than something you can really plan for.

* Calculating the colony value - it always takes a little while for everyone to agree on the right calculation after someone puts down a colony marker. Someone usually forgets to count asteroids, or miscounts the distance from home base, or just adds wrong.

* The special-power modules - often only one or two players will even bother getting any of these. It's kind of just too much trouble to read through them, let alone plan ahead to buy a particular one.
This might be an experience issue-- they might be less undervalued once people get more familiar with how they play out in practice.

* The fact that $10 = 1VP at the end makes me feel like it'd be simpler to just have money *be* VP. Many games have that strategic question of when do you switch from earning money to earning VPs, but since money is just VPs that are also spendable, this isn't as interesting a decision.

I hope this feedback helps-- I feel like it's a decent game that could become a good-to-great game with more development.